Optimism of the intellect ...

Review: The responsibility of intellectuals: reflections by Noam Chomsky and others after 50 years, edited by Nicholas Allott, Chris Knight and Neil Smith (UCL Press 2019, pp142, £13.80)

In 1967, Noam Chomsky wrote an essay, ‘The responsibility of intellectuals’,1 which began his now decades-long reputation as an anti-war activist and writer – the list of his articles and books takes up to full pages. Recently, along with Jeremy Corbyn, he was awarded the Sean McBride Peace Prize.2

The responsibility of intellectuals, the September 2019 book, is a collection of essays subtitled “Reflections by Noam Chomsky and others after 50 years”. Although there are similar themes running through the essays, they need to be read and analysed individually. Most of them express admiration for Chomsky’s activism or political viewpoint, but each represents the individual author’s work or thoughts.

The responsibilities of the intellectual were originally articulated by Chomsky as “to speak the truth and expose lies; to provide historical context; and to lift the veil of ideology, the underlying framework of ideas that limits the boundaries of debate”.3

All well and good. But something is missing in the majority of these essays, neatly summed up by the indomitable Jackie Walker, a black, Jewish woman, inheressay,‘Idon’twantnopeace’, addressing black and minority ethnic intellectuals. But her point is actually relevant to all:

... even the concept of ‘the intellectual’ needs fundamental rethinking if it is not to be practically meaningless, simply another tool to exclude me ... What is the responsibility of any intellectual if it is not wedded to the interests of the people? And, while separation from power is a particular and acute problem for black intellectuals, it is a problem shared by all intellectuals, all people who seek global transformation (p29).

For me, comrade Walker has summed up the missing heartbeat of this collection: although interesting in themselves, especially for those of us who have been around long enough to have read Chomsky’s original, most are lacking in any real political orientation.

I studied linguistics at post- graduate level. At the time, I loathed Chomsky because of his linguistic theory’s total disconnection from the human use of language. His political views - usually considered separately from his linguistic theories - were always welcomed by the left, because they intelligently eviscerated the rightwing hothouse that is the usual growth spot for American politics. So, grudgingly, I accepted that he was an important speaker, but I always felt that his politics, like his linguistics, were a generalised admonition to believers, rather than a rallying cry for action.

Nicholas Allott’s ‘Introduction’ and the first essay by Neil and Amahl Smith attempt to put Chomsky’s arguments into a present-day perspective. The Smiths use Edward Snowden’s case, citing his breaking point as watching the then director of national intelligence lie under oath to Congress. As they point out, Chomsky “commended Snowden’s behaviour”, saying that he “informed American citizens of what their government is doing to them. That’s exactly what a person who has real patriotism ... would do” (p7).

Real patriotism? But nowhere is that’s concept of Chomsky’s discussed in further detail.

The Smiths enumerate the reasons why some intellectuals do not speak out: fear of consequences and lack of what they call “intellectual confidence”. Allott points out that what is often needed is not only to make the government listen, but - perhaps most importantly - to “make apparently powerless people aware that, in conjunction with others, they need not remain powerless” (p11). But the Smiths say: “We have no easy solution to the problems of intellectual courage and confidence, but the practical question of what can be done to encourage more people to do something - anything ... is pressing” (p10).

The “anything”, for these intellectuals, in the face of a lack of working class leadership, seems to be popular uprisings - but popular uprisings, as we all know, do not seem to provide solutions to people’s problems. Sadly, this is as far as any of the essays go in that respect.

The Smiths elaborate on how (or how not) business should be involved in this struggle. They cite historical evidence to show that in American society, through activist pressure, there have been changes in women’s rights, gay rights, etc; and cite Chomsky’s use of Gramsci’s aphorism, “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will” (p10). And, of course, as we all know - where there is a will, there is a way.

Allott’s ‘Introduction’ discusses disseminating the truth and carefully expounds the arguments which clarify (?) “postmodernist relativism” (a phrase that sets my teeth on edge) - the rise of identity politics and political correctness. He argues that one of the reasons intellectuals do not speak out is that political correctness paralyses them. This reminds us of the inability of the Labour Party to fight back against the anti-Semitic calumnies. The Smiths argue that this kind of fear makes it “impossible to talk, even think, about ideas that challenge the established order” (p13).

Allott describes Chomsky’s view that, “if you want to know the overriding aims of the powerful, you havetolookattheiractions-aswell as internal memos and other documents not intended for public consumption - and not be taken in by rhetoric” (p3). He concludes by saying: “... it is almost always easier to serve the interests of the powerful, or to say and do nothing ... [Chomsky’s] work and the example he sets should continue to inspire us” (p3).

At this point one is jumping up and down and yelling, ‘Yes, but who are we supposed to inspire and to do what?’ And how does one get hold of documents not intended for public consumption when the “powerful” do everything possible to hide them? (Currently in court: Trump’s tax returns.)

So what is Chomsky’s example so far? He speaks stirringly in public, he chides the government of the day, he participates in teach-ins, lobbying, demonstrations, etc. In his original capital letter italics The responsibility of intellectuals he wrote: “I can’t suggest a general formula (for action). Detailed decisions have to be matters of personal judgment and conscience” (p14). At the time, he was withholding half of his income tax - the half used for warmongering. This was quite a bold step - for this he could have gone to prison. Of course, he is fortunate that he worked for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - an organisation which in some ways has been brave in the face of rightwing attacks.

Chomsky’s first contribution to the volumegivesashortdescriptionofhow hisoriginalessaywasgreeted-showing that nothing much has changed. When he spoke, his meetings were broken up by counter-demonstrators. On one occasion the venue was changed to a church, which was then attacked. Plus ça change ...

Craig Murray’s rather bitter essay speaks from personal as well as academic experience and is a strong condemnation of present-day intellectuals: ie, academics. In ‘The abdication of responsibility’ he argues that “the responsibility of intellectuals to tell the truth has been well and truly abdicated”, because “most ‘intellectuals’ care a great deal more abouttheircareersthanaboutthetruth” (p74).

The next two essays depend for their analysis on academic theory and modelling. In ‘The responsibility of intellectuals in the era of bounded rationality and democracy for realists”, Allott attempts to show the difficulties of convincing voters through academic research and theory. He basically argues that “human reasoning is prone to a wide variety of biases” (p35). Really? I’m shocked.

Milan Rai’s ‘The propaganda model and the British nuclear weapons debate’ concludes that British national security policy has been “driven ... by a commitment to dominate, to control ‘vital interests’” and “the mainstream media has been driven ... by a commitment to serve power and privilege” (p51).

Those essays are interesting, but for a committed lefty like me, as they say, no cigar.

Chris Knight’s contribution, ‘Speaking truth to power - from within theheartoftheempire’,isdifferent altogether from the others. Having researched Chomsky’s role and friends at the MIT, he attempts to show that Chomsky may have been compromised by his work there. He gives a reason for Chomsky’s fluctuating views on his own (Chomsky’s) works and on the works of some of his friends. At one point, apparently, Chomsky was consultant for a corporation which wanted to use his linguistic theories to develop a computer based language - for the purpose of operating “command and control” for the US military. Knight postulates that the MIT’s “remarkable tolerance” for Chomsky’s activism was possibly to camouflage its own role in the military-industrial complex.

Nevertheless, Knight concludes, as both an insider and outsider of the US military-industrial complex, Chomsky’s words have a special resonance.

The final 24-page essay gives Chomsky himself the opportunity to comment on, eviscerate or say some nice words about each essay. His comments on Chris Knight’s effort take up eight pages, and begin with the words “Chris Knight’s contribution ... has no place in a serious discussion of The responsibility of intellectuals” (p90) and ends with: “And meanwhile I apologise for wasting time and space on this performance” (p99). Clearly this is a long-standing grudge match, and I am not in any position to judge theveritasofeither.

For me, the strongest essay in this compilation is Jackie Walker’s ‘“I don’t want no peace” - an activist’s take on the responsibility of intellectuals’. Her title borrows from Peter Tosh, a Jamaican reggae musician, who demanded: “I don’t want no peace; I need equal rights and justice” (p26).

Walker goes farther than anyone in this compilation in explaining who/ what an intellectual is:

... those who have the ability to reflect, comment and propose solutions on what they see ... [They] are not, however, a homogeneous group and it takes more than intelligence to see beyond the prevailing ideas of the ruling class ... (p27).

The other essayists who address the question feel that an intellectual is, like Alice in Through the looking glass, “what I say it is” and mostly confined to academics. Walker’s impassioned discourse also points to the marginalisation of minorities - “Except in popular culture, sport, prisons and arriving too early at the graveyard” (p29). Or, she points out, as tokens. She ends her essay:

To take on the responsibility of the intellectual is to be part of a movement for change, discarding the trappings that separate thought from action ... Until the streets become the classrooms and the classrooms the streets, our task as intellectuals will be incomplete ... It is a necessary journey. It will be a long and perilous one (p31).

And, of course, she is right. It will be a long and perilous journey - not, unfortunately, helped along by the majority of these essays, interesting though they are.

Gaby Rubin


  1. The original essay appeared in The New York Review of Books February 3 1967; and in Chomsky’s book American power and the new mandarins New York 1969.

  2. Named after Seán MacBride, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who was chairman of the International Peace Bureau from 1968-74 and president from 1974-85.

  3. As noted by Neil Smith and Amahl Smith (p7).